HARRISBURG – With tomorrow being the first day of autumn, many Pennsylvanians will be spending increasing amounts of time outdoors. This also is when black bears become more active, setting the stage for an increase in bear sightings and possibly encounters.
Mark Ternent, Pennsylvania Game Commission black bear biologist, noted that, as fall progresses, bears will begin to increase their food intake to prepare for the upcoming denning season, which begins in mid- to late-November. For some bears, the search for food may lead them closer to people or homes.
Ternent offered suggestions on how to reduce the likelihood that your property will attract bruins and how to best react when a bear is encountered.
“Bear activity can increase during the fall as bears try to consume as many calories as possible from any source they can find in preparation for denning,” Ternent said. “As a result, sightings of bears can increase, particularly if natural nut and berry crops are below average.
“While Pennsylvania bears are mostly timid animals that would sooner run than confront people, residents should know a few things about how to react if they encounter a bear, or better yet, how to avoid an encounter altogether by reducing the likelihood of attracting bears in the first place.”
Ternent stressed there are no known records of a Pennsylvania black bear killing a human, and there have been fewer than 25 reported injuries resulting from black bear encounters during the past 10 years in the state. However, deaths caused by black bears have occurred elsewhere in North America. Pennsylvania’s bear population currently is estimated at 15,000 animals, and reports of problems because people failed to keep food away from bears are not uncommon.
“Pennsylvanians need to understand that when bears become habituated to getting food from people, it can lead to conflicts, property damage and the possibility of injury or eventual destruction of the bear,” Ternent said. “Feeding wildlife, whether the activity is intended for birds or deer, can draw bears into an area. Once bears become habituated to an area where they find food, they will continue to return, which is when the bear can become a real problem for homeowners and neighbors.
“Even more disturbing are the reports we receive about people intentionally feeding bears to make them more visible for viewing or photographing.”
Since March 2003, it has been illegal to intentionally feed bears in Pennsylvania. Also, the unintentional feeding of bears which results in nuisance complaints filed with the Game Commission can result in a written warning that, if ignored, could lead to a citation and fine.
“We recognize that people enjoy viewing wildlife, and we are not attempting to impact that activity,” Ternent said. “But, the agency has an obligation to reduce conflicts when and where we can. All too often, human complaints about bears can be traced back to intentional or unintentional feeding. To protect the public, as well as bears, we need to avoid the dangers of conditioning bears to finding food around homes. It would be irresponsible to do otherwise.”
Ternent listed five recommendations to reduce the chances of having a close encounter with a black bear on a homeowner’s property:
Play it smart. Do not feed wildlife. Food placed outside for wildlife, such as corn for squirrels or deer, may attract bears. Reconsider putting squash, pumpkins, corn stalks or other Halloween or holiday decorations outside that also may attract bears. Even bird feeders can become “bear magnets.” Tips for how to safely feed birds for those in prime bear areas include: restrict feeding season to when bears hibernate, which is primarily from late November through late March; avoid foods that are particularly attractive for bears, such as sunflower seeds, hummingbird nectar mixes or suet; bring feeders inside at night or suspend them from high crosswires; and temporarily remove feeders for two weeks if visited by a bear. Encourage your neighbors to do the same.
Keep it clean. Don’t place garbage outside until pick-up day; don’t throw table scraps out back for animals to eat; don't add fruit or vegetable wastes to your compost pile; and clean your barbecue grill regularly. If you feed pets outdoors, consider placing food dishes inside overnight.
Keep your distance. If a bear shows up in your backyard, stay calm. From a safe distance, shout at it like you would to chase an unwanted dog. If the bear won't leave, slowly retreat and call the nearest Game Commission regional office or local police department for assistance. Children should understand not to run, approach or hide from a bear that wanders into the yard, but, instead, to walk slowly back to the house.
Eliminate temptation. Bears that visit your area are often drawn there. Neighbors need to work together to reduce an area's appeal to bears. Ask area businesses to keep dumpsters closed and bear-proofed (chained or locked shut).
Check please! If your dog is barking, or cat is clawing at the door to get in, try to determine what has alarmed your pet. But do it cautiously, using outside lights to full advantage and from a safe position, such as a porch or an upstairs window. All unrecognizable outside noises and disturbances should be checked, but don't do it on foot with a flashlight. Black bears blend in too well with nighttime surroundings providing the chance for a close encounter. If bears have been sighted near your home, it is a good practice to turn on a light and check the backyard before taking pets out at night.
“Ideally, we want bears to pass by residential areas without finding a food reward that would cause them to return and become a problem,” Ternent said. “Capturing and moving bears that have become habituated to humans is costly and sometimes ineffective because they can return or continue the same unwanted behavior where released. That is why wildlife agencies tell people that a ‘fed bear is a dead bear.’”
Ternent noted that although bears are no strangers to Pennsylvanians, bears are misunderstood by many.
“Bears should not be feared, nor should they be dismissed as harmless; they simply need to be respected,” Ternent said. He also advised:
Stay Calm. If you see a bear and it hasn’t seen you, leave the area calmly. Talk to the bear while moving away to help it discover your presence. Choose a route that will not intersect with the bear if it is moving.
Get Back. If you have surprised a bear, slowly back away while quietly talking. Face the bear, but avoid direct eye contact. Do not turn and run; rapid movement may be perceived as danger to a bear that is already feeling threatened. Avoid blocking the bear’s only escape route and try to move away from any cubs you see or hear. Do not attempt to climb a tree. A female bear can falsely interpret this as an attempt to get at her cubs, even though the cubs may be in a different tree.
Pay Attention. If a bear is displaying signs of nervousness or discomfort with your presence, such as pacing, swinging its head, or popping its jaws, leave the area. Some bears may bluff charge to within a few feet. If this occurs, stand your ground, wave your arms wildly, and shout at the bear. Turning and running could elicit a chase and you cannot outrun a bear. Bears that appear to be stalking should be confronted and made aware of your willingness to defend by waving your arms and yelling while you continue to back away.
Fight Back. If a bear attacks, fight back as you continue to leave the area. Bears have been driven away with rocks, sticks, binoculars, car keys, or even bare hands.
“Learning about bears and being aware of their habits is a responsibility that comes with living in rural Pennsylvania or recreating in the outdoors,” Ternent said.
Intelligent and curious, black bears are heavy and have short, powerful legs. Adults usually weigh from 200 to 600 pounds, with rare individuals weighing up to 800 pounds. An adult male normally weighs more than an adult female, sometimes twice as much.
Bears may be on the move at anytime, but they're usually most active during evening and morning hours. Bears are omnivorous, eating almost anything from berries, corn, acorns, beechnuts, or even grass to table scraps, carrion, honey and insects.
More information on black bears is available on the Game Commission’s website (www.pgc.state.pa.us) by selecting on “Hunting,” and then clicking on the black bear photograph.